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by courtesy of Mr. Qiu Huanxing and Mr. Lu Zhongmin,
the authors of Folk Customs Of China


With a population of about 40 million, the Hakkas are spread throughout many provinces in South China, such as Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi, Hunan, Guangxi, Sichuan, Taiwan and Hainan. The Hakkas used to be the northern Hans living in Shanxi, Henan and Hebei. During the 200 to 300years after the third century, there were constant wars in North China resulting in frequent changes of rulers. The northern Hans who were plagued by wars and disasters could not stay there anymore and had to abandon their homes. They crossed the Yellow and Yangtze rivers in groups, moving towards the south little by little. Finally they settled down in South China. It is called the first immigration in Chinese history. At the end of the Tang Dynasty in the ninth century and at the end of the Southern Song in the thirteenth century, China experienced another two immigrations because of wars. With knowledge of the origin and path of these three immigrations, an immigration history of the Chinese nation can be outlined.

The Hakkas who immigrated to the south cherish their own traditions. They retain their own language, culture, rites and customs. Isolated by the high mountains,they did not have much contact with local inhabitants. As a result, they have their own unique customs.

The Hakkas make a beancurd dish on festivals and for the lunar New Year, filling each small piece of beancurd with ground meat and then frying them until they become brown, and finally they are put into a pot for cooking. They did this because when the northerners moved to South China, they were short of flour to make jiaozi (dumplings with meat and vegetable stuffing) at festival times, so they made stuffed beancurd instead to adapt to the new conditions.

The Hakka dialect is one of seven major dialects in China. Compared with the other two main local dialects (Guangzhou and southern Fujian dialects), Hakka is the most similar to Putonghua (standard Mandarin Chinese).

Folk songs are popular among the Hakkas. When cutting firewood in the mountains, or taking a break during work, young people will sing in antiphonal style with high voices. Their songs are about the land, work and life. Love songs are also popular. The following song is an example:

Seeing vines twine around trees when one enters the mountains, If trees are dead, vines will stay with them forever, And if vines die, trees will refuse to abandon them unless they did too.

Here trees and vines are likened to affectionate couples, ready to sacrifice for each other. The origin of the folk songs can be found in the Book of Songs edited by Confucius. The folk songs in the book were collected from Shanxi, Hebei and Henan provinces.

The funeral rites for the Hakkas are unique. When someone dies, southerners place the body in a coffin and bury the coffin with a tombstone in front of the tomb. Then the funeral is finished. However, the Hakkas dig up the coffin three to five years later to clean the remains of the dead. The Hakkas call the rite "leading ancestors from underground." Then they place the remains of the body into the shape of a man, bend his limbs and store them in pottery jar and bury the jar in a selected spot. It is called the second burial by archaeologists. It is said that this rite should be attributed to the immigration of the Hakkas to the south. No matter where they went, the men in the family would carry the ancestors' remains. As soon as they had settled down in a place, they would bury their ancestors, because they were afraid that they would not be able to go back to their hometown to pay respects to their dead ancestors if they moved far away from home.

The Hakkas, who were forced to leave home and wandered about, adopt various ways to express their desire of living and working in peace and contentment. When a couple is married, people will find a bunch of grass tied with a red string in a basket and hung at the head of the bed in the bridal chamber. The grass, called "longevity grass," is brought by the bride and must be planted in the vegetable garden of her husband's family on the wedding day, symbolizing that she will take root there and will not move in her later life.


A group of enclosed Hakka houses. The wall is propped by a frame of bamboo and wood chips.Cooked glutinous rice and brown sugar are added to immature soil, fine sand and limestone, which are kneaded, pounded, pressed, and finally rammed into place to make the wall.

The houses of the Hakkas show that they abide by their old tradition and refuse to be assimilated. A house usually holds several dozen to a hundred families. One can imagine that the architect must take pains to design such a huge project which embraces so many people.

In square, rectangular, semicircular and round shapes, the surrounding houses or buildings often have two or three storeys with windows facing outside and the door facing inside. Some houses have two to three circles of surrounding structures. The rooms upstairs and downstairs serve as bedrooms, kitchens, storage places and livestock sheds. Between the buildings are courtyards where residents dry things on sunny days, drain water on rainy days, or hold outdoor activities. In case of fire, the lanes around the walls and the courtyards help to prevent the fire from spreading.

The layout of each building is different. With some, the front door, portico, courtyard, middle hall and main hall are the central axis with chambers, living rooms and courtyards arranged symmetrically on both sides. Some use the middle hall as an ancestral hall, which is flanked by chambers and backs on to two or three semi-circular surrounding buildings.

There is a pond in front of each house for collecting water drained from the courtyard. People raise fish and wash clothes and vegetables in the pond and water the vegetable garden with the water from the pond. If there is a fire, the water from the pond is used to put it out.

The ancestral hall is the heart of a house. On festivals, families make sacrificial offerings to their ancestors. Anyone from the family who comes home from far away or is going to marry must go to the ancestral hall to pay respects to their forefathers. So do girls who are going to marry in another place or members of the family who are leaving home. It also serves as a mourning hall if one of the family elders dies. With their own unique structures, the surrounding buildings of the Hakkas are suitable for family life, although as a mourning hall if one of the family elders dies. With their own unique structures, the surrounding buildings of the Hakkas are suitable for family life, although as in nay living arrangement, disputes and conflicts among several dozen families living in a huge house are unavoidable. Therefore, a respected member of the community is slected as the leader of the group. Collective decisions are made on weddings or funerals, schools, water conservancy projects, repairs on bridges and roads and other decisions affecting the group. However, if anyone violates the clan's rules or discipline, or if the village comes into conflict with another village, the clan head will take measures to handle it.

To keep peace in the village, local people abide by unwritten rules which are understood. People living in the earth buildings may pile and store things in front of their rooms, but are not allowed to occupy the territory belonging to other people. In their rooms, but are not allowed to occupy the territory belonging to other people. In the season for transplanting rice sprouts, people should use the water equally, so that every family can transplant rice sprouts on time. If anyone keeps water for his own use, the clan head has the right to open breaches along the ditch. If one injures a person in the fight for water, he must pay all medical expenses for the injured and go to his home to apologize. When the rice is ripe, it is prohibited to release chickens and ducks to the fields. If anyone who acts against the rules, his chickens or ducks can be eaten by anyone who catches them. In the mountains forests are important sources of income. Those who secretly cut timbers shall pay for the wood according to arranged prices. Those who start forest fires out of carelessness shall hold banquets to treat the villagers who help put out the fire, and made a compensatory payment according to an arranged price.

When sons grow up, the family holding will be shared among them. First of all, the father and sons discuss how to divide houses and property. When a man sets up his own household, his father-in-law will come with rice, wood and buckets in the morning amidst firecrackers. The buckets hold pots, bowls, ladles, cakes, onions, garlic and celery. They bring these in order to help their daughters and sons-in-law establish their own homes and also to express their wish that they will work hard and earn their income themselves (celery, onion, garlic and wood being homonymous with the words for diligence, clever, calculation and wealth in Chinese).

But when small families are set up, a part of fields, mountains, forests and fish ponds will be left as public property of the whole family. The public fields will be ploughed and taken care of by sons and grandsons in turn. Income from public fields will be used to offer sacrifices to ancestors, help the poorer members of the clan, for education or to establish public facilities.

Although clan rules and rites have been replaced by government laws and regulations, the former clan rules still play and active role in maintaining the unity of a village.



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